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Masters Of Disaster returns with Jonathon Dabell reviewing the 1976 TV movie Mayday At 40,000 Feet, starring David Janssen, Don Meredith, Christopher George and Lynda Day George.

Mayday At 40,000 Feet is a fairly standard airborne drama. By 1976 – with The High And The Mighty (1954), Zero Hour! (1957), a couple of Airport movies (’70 and ’75 respectively) and Skyjacked (1972) already released – it could be considered a rather late addition to the airplane disaster cycle. But taken on its own merits, it is a perfectly decent film which follows the tried-and-trusted formula effectively enough to keep you watching.

Captain (David Janssen), Co-pilot (Christopher George) and Second Officer (Don Meredith) at the controls

Captain (David Janssen), Co-pilot (Christopher George) and Second Officer (Don Meredith) at the controls

As is nearly always the case with these disaster entries, the film applies a straightforward three-section structure. First we have the build-up in which the various characters are sketched in and their relationship with each other established. Secondly, the crisis/crises – in this case: a crippled aircraft, a convict-in-transit causing mayhem, injured passengers and a badly wounded pilot. And thirdly, the resolution – in layman’s terms “Do The Protagonists Get Out Of Their Perilous Predicament Safely?” It’s a completely familiar formula, but within the parameters of the genre Mayday At 40,000 Feet is passable fare.

Captain Pete Douglas (David Janssen) is anxious to get from L.A. to New York to be with his wife Kitty (Jane Powell) who is in hospital with possible breast cancer. Stan Burkhart (Christopher George), the co-pilot, and Mike Fuller (Don Meredith), the Second Officer, notice that Douglas’s mood is pretty foul due to the stress he is under, but aren’t too concerned since his flying skills seem as sharp as ever.

The return flight is due to stop for refuelling at Salt Lake City, where a federal prisoner, Greco (Marjoe Gortner), is to be brought aboard under the supervision of Marshal Riese (Broderick Crawford). Other subplots are thrown into the mix – co-pilot Burkhart has reacquainted with ex-lover Susan (Margaret Blye), and has arranged for her to be aboard the flight to join him in New York; Second Officer Fuller is looking for romance with stewardess Cathy Armello (Lynda Day George); a doctor (Ray Milland) facing a malpractice lawsuit is busily drinking himself into oblivion; senior stewardess Terry Dunlap (Shani Wallis) is making her last trip before quitting to adopt a baby, etc.

Stan (George) reacquaints with his ex-lover Susan (Blye)... but soon they'll have more to worry about!

Stan (George) reacquaints with his ex-lover Susan (Blye)… but soon they’ll have more to worry about than their chances in love!

When Riese suffers a heart attack and Greco manages to get hold of his gun, he ends up critically damaging the plane, shooting some passengers and seriously wounding the captain. Can the rest of the crew pull together to get the aircraft safely back to terra firma?

It’s quite an ensemble cast for a modest TV movie. No-one is absolutely godawful in it, but no-one is really on fire either. Janssen is in stern and moody mode as the distracted (and latterly injured) pilot; George and Fuller do the dull square-jawed-hero thing reasonably well, although such roles don’t require much of the actors. More fun and verve is found in Gortner’s loony convict (a slightly deranged performance… not exactly good, but entertaining for sheer wide-eyed wackiness) and Milland’s hard-drinking doctor, stung and discredited after involving himself in an accident whilst off-duty and now reluctant to help when needed. It’s nice to see Shani Wallis too (Nancy from the 1968 musical Oliver!) in one of her rare screen roles, playing a sardonic air hostess (complete with reasonably convincing American accent).

Doctor (Milland) tends to a wounded passenger as the crisis hots up!

Doctor (Milland) tends to a wounded passenger as the crisis hots up!

After a 45-minute stretch pencilling in the characters’ back stories, the dramatic crisis itself is actually quite low-key and unexciting. Plane-set disaster movies usually take a while to get going, but the final third is often pretty taut and palm-sweating. One of the key problems with Mayday At 40,000 Feet is that none of the characters stuck aboard the stricken plane seem particularly worried about what is happening to them. Thousands of people have a chronic fear of flying; such folks turn deadly pale and jump out of their skin every time the faintest tremble of air turbulence shakes the plane. Yet everyone here seems remarkably calm considering that the hydraulics on the aircraft have been shot to shit, and the captain is too badly injured to oversee the emergency landing. If I was a passenger aboard this plane, I’d be scared witless that we might drop from the sky at any moment, or be unable to land because of the damage, or might attempt a landing but end up crashing. None of those rather obvious concerns are explored in this movie at all. The drama comes more from: a)  wondering about the fate of those who have been shot, b) wondering if Gortner’s crazy convict will get loose and cause any more damage, and c) wondering if doctor Milland will overcome his demons and stewardess Wallis will ever make it home to adopt her baby. Genuine tension is only found right at the very end, as George and Meredith take the controls to make their final approach, but for most  its duration Mayday At 40,000 Feet is better at character dynamics than suspense.

Terry (Wallis) attempts to keep the passengers informed as the plane prepares for emergency landing.

Terry (Wallis) attempts to keep the passengers informed as the plane prepares for emergency landing.

That’s not to say it’s a bad film. It’s a fairly typical, and entirely watchable, TV movie off-shoot of the bigger cinematic films popular at the time. There are some enjoyable performances, a smidge of climactic excitement, and it’s all rather competently done. Not too bad at all.

MoM Rating: 5/10


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